Jennifer Pashley

Flood

We start get­ting too much rain. Nothing for a long time so the ground dries and cracks in bare patch­es in the mid­dle of the yard and looks like the bot­toms of your feet. The grass thin and brit­tle. And then it starts rain­ing. It starts on a Wednesday and it just comes. Slow at first and then hard­er. It’s great for the first day, you feel it leak­ing into the ground, mak­ing every­thing bet­ter. A drink. And then anoth­er.

Deen looks out the back bed­room win­dow, the wall of win­dows that looks out over the yard, the trees, the creek. Sweet fuck­ing God, she says as it starts, the rain like diag­o­nal stripes. Because this is what I need, she says.

But it is. It’s just what we need.

 

Deen left her hus­band, Russ, after ten years. Before Russ, she was sin­gle for a long time. Single and dat­ing. Badly. Russ, she mar­ried after four good dates. He took her to a base­ball game. My sis­ter hates base­ball. But for this guy, she went.  They were mar­ried for ten years with no kids and Deen came home after work one day and found tapes tucked into a ceil­ing tile in the base­ment. They were marked All My Children, which were tapes she’d had from col­lege, old tapes of old shows. She took them down and played them. He’d taped over her old soaps with porn. Worse, they were tapes of Russ and oth­er girls. Old ones, she knew, because his tat­too wasn’t there, an eagle on his left bicep, which he got after he met Deen. Still. He was home every day while Deen worked. He was sup­posed to be look­ing for work, but instead he was home, watch­ing him­self fuck oth­er girls.

She lost that job, the job she was com­ing home from. It was a paper box com­pa­ny, not cor­ru­gat­ed but hard paper board, pack­age design for things like elec­tron­ics and cell phones. They all showed up at work at sev­en am, the same as always, but the door was bolt­ed. Seventeen work­ers, desk jobs, press han­dlers, guys who ran the die cut machine, the old ladies who did the billing and the wrote up orders on car­bon forms. Out of work.

So there’s Deen, look­ing out my back bed­room win­dow at the rain com­ing in from the west over the creek in diag­o­nal stripes, like mov­ing fab­ric on a poly­ester dress, watch­ing the water drink right into the ground. Out of a job, out of a hus­band. And in my house. That’s where that came from.

 

I can’t sleep well. Deen snores. We sleep togeth­er in that back bed­room in the king size bed like we did when we were kids and went to stay at our Grandpa’s in Pennsylvania. A val­ley of space between us, lying with­out touch­ing. I get up. I go into the kitchen. Make cof­fee and make paint­ings with cof­fee. Not the hot cof­fee but what­ev­er was left over. It stains the paper and I drag the brush and make faces, hous­es, flow­ers. I hang them up at work, to sell. No one buys them even though they’re fif­teen dol­lars. They buy the cof­fee. Even that they com­plain about.

Deen comes into the shop that Tuesday, before it starts rain­ing. It’s still, feels like some­thing heavy will come out of the sky soon, like an anvil in an old car­toon, just drop­ping on you. She comes in and she sits and she plays with the Chinese check­ers board by her­self. She com­plains. I tell her she can’t come to work with me any­more.

What crawled up your ass and died? she says.

You did, I say. Now go home.

 

We sleep in that back bed­room togeth­er because no one goes upstairs. Upstairs there are two more lit­tle bed­rooms and a bath­room in between. One room, under the dormer, with a day bed and a white dresser from when we were kids, is floor to ceil­ing with Deen’s stuff. Not even box­es but black trash­bags most­ly. She moved in a hur­ry. Trash bags the most con­ve­nient way to go. The oth­er room, closed off. A low room with pan­el­ing, and a desk made out of an old door. The last room where I sat with Dennis. We sat on either side of the desk, me at it, like I was writ­ing. Dennis with the win­dow behind his head, a halo of light around him, and his face, blot­ted out in shad­ow.

 

Aim, Deen says, You know no one’s going to buy the­se. She fin­gers a pic­ture on the wall above the table where we keep the cream and sug­ar.

I know, I say. I wasn’t look­ing to turn a prof­it.

Cause it’s a stu­pid idea, she says. Coffee.

I’m so tired my limbs are buzzing. I lean back on the fridge where we keep the cream, the smooth­ie mix, the can of Redi Whip.

See you lat­er, Deen says. Her feet are blue around the edges, hang over her flip flops in an uneven way, so the mid­dles are worn flat, the sides like they haven’t been touched, nev­er worn. I watch her feet walk out into the sun, the dust, the hot air like breath­ing inside a plas­tic bag. Still Tuesday.

 

Dennis’s eyes, his hair and his skin were all the same col­or. Olive, gold like he walked out of the sun. He had a scar on the plane between his right armpit and nip­ple from a lung col­lapse. Another on his knee from a bike acci­dent. Highly arched feet. Small square hands. Lips you might kiss just to feel them under your own, for the way they blend into his face, for their soft­ness, their smile, or like you might draw the pink right from them, lean in, and sip.

A wom­an I don’t know comes in to the shop and she asks for a lat­te, she asks about the drought, she asks about my hus­band.

Terrible, I agree with her.

The gen­tle­man, she calls him, who worked here?

He passed away, I say.

Oh my good­ness, she says, her hand, tanned and start­ing its first wrin­kles, flat on her chest, also tanned, also wrin­kling. How? she says, with­out think­ing. He was so young.

He drowned, I say. A lie. But only par­tial. The creek, down to just rocks and a bare trick­le.

My good­ness, she says. He was your hus­band, she says.

He was.

 

When the rain comes, kids go out in the street. It’s warm still, and the pave­ment hot, the first shal­low pud­dles like bath­wa­ter. You see them out there, stomp­ing, laugh­ing. One girl leans her head back, her mouth open. It goes on all over town, in the back­yards, on side­walks. The par­ents let it hap­pen. For the first day any­way.

 

There are no chil­dren between us. For me, or for Deen. And Deen’s not exact­ly too old, but she is, kind of. She said to me one time, Your hus­band isn’t hav­ing any kids. I didn’t dis­agree with her, but she went on. You know why? she said. Cause you can’t get a fag­got preg­nant by fuck­ing him in the ass, that’s why, she said. And I think about all that skin, all that sur­face between us, between me and Dennis. A dry flat plane, the lines you could ride your fin­ger down, fol­low a path or a string of words. Maybe it would tell you some­thing. Dennis.

 

He went home to die. To Virginia. He stayed with his sis­ter. Now my sis­ter stays with me. I didn’t go. His sis­ter called me right before, and then I didn’t go. I didn’t go at all.

 

The gut­ters are off the back of the house. When it rains hard, the water falls straight down off the edge of the roof and pounds a line into the ground. The sec­ond day of the rain, it seeps from the ground, under the base­ment walls and it moves across the floor like it’s alive. A cell that moves from with­in, rolling with a dry edge right to a low spot in the mid­dle of the base­ment floor. Deen goes down for laun­dry and then comes back up, a bas­ket of only her things on her hip. She pass­es me in the kitchen and says, Water in the base­ment, and then goes on into the bed­room to fold.

 

In the mid­dle of the worst of it, the angel comes to our door. I don’t have any oth­er expla­na­tion for it. Just that.

 

The water ris­es. We unplug things in the base­ment, the wash­er, the dry­er, the big freez­er that came with the house, that the pre­vi­ous own­ers used for putting up veg­eta­bles and fruits. I wear flip flops down there, the water inch­es deep on most of the floor. Deen stands on the steps and points things out. There’s no longer a dry edge, just a mov­ing sheet of water. It’s not even a stream under one part of the wall, but rather, like the whole wall leaks. The whole thing, sat­u­rat­ed and giv­ing way. I move some box­es to a high­er shelf. Dennis’s things. Books. A ten­nis tro­phy. Some sil­ver rimmed cham­pag­ne glass­es his moth­er gave us at the wed­ding. They’d been hers. I imag­ine she wants them back.

 

People stop going out. The kids are out at first and then it rains all night. The ends of dri­ve­ways fill up. Low spots in lawns become big mud pud­dles. People run from the door to their cars. Cars swish when they go down Center Street. There is con­stant noise, the rain on the roof, the wet trail of cars and trucks on the pave­ment. No thun­der. Just water and water and water.

The emer­gen­cy broad­cast sys­tem comes on. It used to scare me and Deen when we were kids, when it came on dur­ing Happy Days when we were home in the sum­mer. That loud buzz. I’d cov­er my ears, creep under the din­ing room table. Our moth­er, sewing. She didn’t hear it over the drum of her machine. Deen would laugh at me. I’d go under the table when the meter man came too. It scared me to have a man in the house.

It says we should seek high­er ground. We have the TV on in the back bed­room, the screen small again­st the win­dows, again­st the rain out back. The house is a good eigh­teen feet above the creek. The lawn, slop­ing down to the bank. Deen eats pop­corn on her side of the bed.

What’s high­er than this? Deen says.

The col­lege, I say.

I’m not going up there, Deen says.

We are in flood plain A. FEMA des­ig­nat­ed. As if that helps. Our street goes by on the news tick­er. Evacuate to high­er ground.

Fuck ‘em, Deen says. Carl says Center Street hasn’t flood­ed in a hun­dred years, she says.

It’s high time, I say. But what I think about is the water, com­ing up in the base­ment, up the yard, the water ris­ing in the creek, the way it starts at the bot­tom of some­thing, seeps in, works upward, climb­ing a wick. I think about Dennis’s lungs, start­ing at the bot­tom, fill­ing up, soak­ing up like a sponge, about the rat­tle of water in his chest. The space between breaths.

 

What are we sup­posed to do? Deen says. I watch her feet on the open wood­en stairs that go into the base­ment. She stands on the top of five, because the bot­tom three are cov­ered. You can’t run a shop vac down there. You’d elec­tro­cute your­self.

The water is high enough that it creeps into the open door on the front load­ing wash­ing machine. Stuff floats. An old shoe. Lint from the dry­er, on top of the water like a skim. It smells dank, like wet stone, and dirt, and peo­ple all mixed togeth­er.

I think about leav­ing. We prob­a­bly should leave, although at this point, we’d have to walk. Few cars come down Center Street. Tall trucks. Even the Jeeps have a hard time get­ting through. And like all things, I kind of want to see how bad it gets before I bail.

 

So we watch. We sit on the bed with the TV on mute and we watch those giant win­dows off the back of the house. They glaze and grease over with pol­len and dirt and so much rain pound­ing again­st them. A few days ago you couldn’t see the creek down there, only hear it at night, when the street was qui­et, if the water was high enough to rush through the rocks in the bed. Now you can see the edges of it on our lawn. Lilacs like water plants, halfway cov­ered, the wil­lows even, with their low limbs float­ing like hair in the water. We watch ducks come and land, flow with the cur­rent from the back of the yard, closer to the street, then get up and fly back to wear they start­ed, to make the ride again. In the morn­ing, there are deer out there, up to their knees in the water, pick­ing their legs high, look­ing for low leaves to eat. By after­noon, a neighbor’s cow has wan­dered over. Her own pas­ture, too low and com­plete­ly sub­merged. One lone cow, wad­ing her way up through our yard, a long slow lum­ber. We watch it like it’s unre­al. It is unre­al. She keeps com­ing closer.

What the hell is that cow doing? Deen says, her voice high pitched. I can’t tell if she’s laugh­ing, or hys­ter­i­cal. We eat turkey sand­wich­es, still on the bed.

I don’t know, I say. You can see her face out there, her ears plas­tered flat, and her mouth open. She must be low­ing. She’s look­ing right at us.

Should we let her in? Deen says. We laugh for a long time about that.

 

No one came to our wed­ding. Dennis and I mar­ried in a vine­yard, by our­selves, by one of Dennis’s friends, Jackson, who was an ordained heal­er. At the time, no one saw the irony in that. My fam­i­ly was just my moth­er and Deen. We were like three strangers, three sin­gle wom­en get­ting out of each other’s way. Dennis didn’t tell his par­ents until after­ward. Why? I’d said. Oh, he said. They’d nev­er believe in you, he’d said. He smiled in the sun­light. There were tiny black grapes all around us, big­ger green grapes that were so light they were gold. Fields of long grass, yel­lowed and frayed in the heat. I was in san­dals. Dennis in linen. It took ten min­utes and then we bought our friend a bot­tle of Reisling, sat where you could see the lake down below, the grass there, green and shad­ed til it hit the water, the hill one you could roll down. After the bot­tle of Reisling, they took off through the grass, Dennis and Jackson, shed­ding cloth­ing. Dennis’s shoes, camel leather mocs, kicked up, yards apart. His linen shirt, snagged on a low branch. They can­non­balled into the water, both of them naked. Jackson, howl­ing with laugh­ter. Dennis float­ed, bel­ly up in the sun. The light, like dia­monds all around him.

 

The sound of the fire house is con­stant now. The dark moan that comes from the tow­er, sig­nalling anoth­er emer­gen­cy, anoth­er call. Don’t they have some bet­ter way to con­tact the fire­man? Deen asks. Cell phones? she says. That thing is the equiv­a­lent of yelling.

It goes on all day, and all night. In the night, you hear every third call may­be. You get used to it, and miss the ones in between. It’s just extra breath­ing in the house, in the town, the creep­ing sad sigh that moves through the streets, telling you to get out of the way.

 

It scared me when our grand­fa­ther died and our moth­er told me that he wasn’t gone, that he was watch­ing us. I was afraid to do any­thing after that. I imag­ined him at the ceil­ing in every room, perched on door­ways or book­shelves, or worst, just float­ing above, watch­ing. He had a glass eye, which made this worse. I thought may­be I would see just the eye, because while the rest of you might evap­o­rate and go to heav­en, the eye wouldn’t, because it wasn’t human.

When Dennis died I thought the same thing. I thought of him hov­er­ing, of him in every room, watch­ing me cook, watch­ing me sleep. I knew that if I’d been able to watch him, sleep­ing, wherever it was he was sleep­ing, he might not be dead. I might have stopped that from hap­pen­ing. But prob­a­bly not.

And then when the angel came to our door, I real­ized that isn’t what hap­pens at all.

 

His name is Tom. He rings the door­bell close to mid­night, when Deen and I are watch­ing TV. It’s after the news even, after all the warn­ings about not dri­ving into unknown depths. Turn around, it says, Don’t drown. They show a tree, up to its armpits in water.

Our porch light is on. Beyond the porch, it rains side­ways. He is in white, and he is drenched through. I can see his nip­ples and the hair on his stom­ach through his but­toned up shirt. He has a mess of dread­locks pulled into a long pony tail. They are the col­or of damp sand, ashy blond. At the roots, at his fore­head, the hair is nor­mal, curly, pulled away from his face, which is fine like chi­na and beau­ti­ful.

The porch floor is wet, and run­ning into the grass. Through the screen even, the rain reach­es me in a mist. I would ask him if he needs help, but it’s clear. I let him in, and grab him a tow­el. There’s no car out front.

He stands on the braid­ed rug inside the door and waits. He’s in rolled up khak­is and flip flops, his feet, run­ning with water. He’s about as big around as one of Deen’s legs. His wrist­bones, like knobs stick­ing out of the base of his hands. I wrap the tow­el around his shoul­ders, tell him he should get undressed.

Thank you, he says.

Aimee, I say.

Tom, he says. He nods.

The man, I say, dry in my throat, my mouth sud­den­ly, who lived here. He doesn’t, any­more. Dennis, I say.

I know, Tom says. He shiv­ers. And then Deen comes out, she rum­bles into the room to get a drink from the fridge. She sees us in the door­way, under the hall light, shin­ing down on Tom’s wet head.

You have got your­self a fuck­ing prob­lem, she says to me.

 

It seems odd to offer a bath to a man who comes in soak­ing wet, but it’s what I do. Deen and I use the mas­ter bath, the one in the back bed­room which has a show­er stall, but I take Tom upstairs to the hall bath, and I fill the tub with hot water, with bub­bles even that smell like vanil­la. I take his wet clothes and wring them in the sink. I would dry them, but the dry­er is sub­merged, short­ed out, the drum half-filled with water.

I sit on the closed toi­let. I have some of Dennis’s clothes, I say.

I would like that, he says. He leans back, his hair wrapped in a tow­el the way a wom­an would wear it. He is not wom­an­ly though. Just a sliv­er of mas­culin­i­ty, a new moon, dipped in my tub.

 

I take out a blan­ket, a quilt that Dennis’s moth­er made from his sis­ters’ dress­es. It’s pieces of vel­vet, reds and greens and blues, even black. He had three sis­ters. She put this quilt togeth­er for Christmas one year. Dennis just loved those dress­es, she said. It cov­ers the floor in the shad­ow of the desk that we made from the door. The win­dow beyond it, dark, striped with rain.

Tom comes out, dry, smelling like sug­ar cook­ies, his hair even, spiced and squeezed of all the water. I have a t-shirt for him, one of Dennis’s favorites, with a cab­bage on it, and the words Erieville Farmers Market. Drawstring linen pants that he can cinch around his small waist. He leaves them on the chair. Lies down on the blan­ket. I know what it feels like. It feels like milk under your skin. A pelt you can­not stop touch­ing. I sit on my knees beside him and he puts one arm under his head, one hand on my thigh, tucked into the space between.

There’s just the light from the hall­way. It cuts across his mid­dle and leaves his face in the shad­ow. Behind him, a shelf of books. Art books. Poetry books. Mine and Dennis’s togeth­er.

He push­es up, and brings his face into the light. His eyes are the col­or of glass.  I kiss him. Dry at first, and then open­ing up. I’m afraid that touch­ing him will make him dis­ap­pear. That he will turn to dust beneath my lips. A cloud.

We sit like that, our fore­heads togeth­er. I hear the stac­ca­to shots of Deen mak­ing pop­corn down­stairs. The smell, heavy with but­ter and the fan of the microwave. I shut the door with my foot and we sit with only the light from the win­dow, the street light in front of the house.

We kiss again, and more. We lie down on the vel­vet blan­ket. I feel like the ground must, flood­ed. Like how you feel when what you thought was safe for a hun­dred years ris­es, and sat­u­rates you.

I open my eyes and he is still there, solid.

I loved him so much, I say to the angel.

I know, he says, long, like breath­ing.

 

When he still lived at home, I drew pic­tures of Dennis. He had a pic­ture that he loved, of John Keats, sleep­ing before he died. When he showed it to me I was unin­ter­est­ed. I want­ed his body. I want­ed to get the shape, the heft, the col­or of it on paper. I didn’t want poet­ry. But he showed me the book, the pen­cil draw­ing of Keats’s face, drawn by his friend who sat by him and watched him die. Keats’s lungs, eat­en away inside his chest. Dennis’s chest, fill­ing with water. The face in the draw­ing, tilt­ed to the side, sleep­ing, soft, qui­et to what rages beneath it.

So I drew him when he was sleep­ing. He slept on the old couch in the liv­ing room,  under the win­dow fac­ing the street. I wait­ed for the light to change, drew more. When he left, I kept them all. I thought to send them to his moth­er, to his sis­ters, for them to keep his face, the way I had seen it last, sleep­ing with the sun­light across his brow. But I kept them. I tucked them into the book­shelves, in between the books. Dennis, Dennis, Dennis.

His face is gone from this world, not even buried, but burned, com­plete­ly incin­er­at­ed, a sub­stance you can no longer hold, but that will just fly away out of your hands if you touch it or even breathe on it.

I think about what you keep, of any­one, of what stays behind, of ghosts in the cor­ners of rooms, watch­ing you. And real­ize that you burst into light. That you die and you burst into angels that come to you in many places, fleshy places, whole and some­thing you can touch. Something that comes to your door in the mid­dle of the night, wet and famil­iar. That we meet again and again in the strangest and most known places of all.

 

In the morn­ing, thun­der. A front rolls in which may­be will make it bet­ter, but not yet. I get up in the dark because it’s still dark after eight o’clock, and go down to find Deen and Tom on the front porch with cups of cof­fee. They sit with their feet up on the rails, their toes get­ting wet. It rains straight down instead of side­ways. At least it’s dif­fer­ent.

A neigh­bor from way down Center Street comes down in a canoe. He has his dog in the back, a bar­rel chest­ed yel­low lab who looks out the back of the boat like he will jump any time. The neigh­bor, whose name I don’t know, I just think of him as the guy with the big lab, wears a green rain parka and flop­py hat. He pad­dles.

Do you need any­thing? he calls out.

I set­tle in a chair between them, my own cup of cof­fee hot in my hands. No, I yell back. Thanks.

He waves. Tom laughs, and waves back. We all sit there, the world dif­fer­ent, ele­men­tal­ly dif­fer­ent than it was four days ago, and the rain on the roof is deaf­en­ing.

~

Jennifer Pashley is the author of States, a col­lec­tion of short fic­tion. Her sto­ries have appeared in Mississippi Review, PANK, SmokeLong Quarterly and Swink, among oth­ers. She is cur­rent­ly wor­ry­ing a nov­el, and teach­ing cre­ative writ­ing part time at Syracuse University.